Mira Edgerly was a 2nd Cousin of Lewis Wright, my mom’s paternal grandfather. He and Mira descended from the same bunch of Davis folks in Erie County, Pennsylvania at the beginning of the 19th Century. Mira’s mother was Rosanna Haskill, the daughter of Betsey Davis Haskill, my 4th great aunt. This branch of the family was headquartered in La Porte County, Indiana, for several generations.
Mira was from Aurora, Illinois, the youngest of three sisters – though it’s not clear exactly when she was born. The date sorta flip-flops back and forth between 1872 and 1876.
Her father was Samuel Haven Edgerly, an inventor, a director of the Michigan Central Railroad, and a man too generous for his own good. He loaned someone a huge amount of money, then promptly died. The borrower defaulted on the loan, and Rosanna and the girls were left flat broke.
One article I read told of Rosanna sitting the girls down and explaining that she was not going to be able to take care of them for the rest of their lives, so they were going to have to make their own lives. They moved to Kansas City for a time, then to San Francisco. But they did all ultimately find their respective ways: Minnie was a gifted artist, though not an especially successful one. She married James W. Russell. The eldest, Amy, studied mathematics at the University of Michigan, married Rush C. Lake, and lived with him on a farm outside Kansas City until his death at the beginning of the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918.
Mira would sort of become an amalgam of her two sisters – an accomplished, self-taught artist with a brilliant intellect. When she took up painting she pursued the mostly-forgotten field of miniatures on ivory. Armed with some old poker chips and a not-quite used up set of watercolors, she set out to learn the process. Her quirk, if you will, an instantly identifying characteristic of her work, is that her miniatures are mostly very large for “miniatures” – the pieces of ivory she favored were sometimes 6, 8, 10 inches wide. Her reputation grew as she honed her skills.
She caught the attention of Arnold Genthe, a photographer, and ended up doing some modeling for him (left). (Side note: Genthe is himself a fascinating subject. He’s probably most known today for photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and of the ruins of the city after the 1906 earthquake and fire. He also shot a remarkable series of portraits of Greta Garbo in New York in 1925. Before Hollywood, before MGM.)
But back to Mira – she brought ivory miniatures back into vogue. De rigeur for any fine family worth its salt. She painted Queen Victoria’s daughter and dozens of other royals. Two of her pieces are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: One of the children of the Dodge family of Detroit (1926), and the other, pictured, a piece called Mother Love (1911) – Mrs. Laurence Drummond & Son. And there’s a 1916 triptych, three views of tobacco heiress Doris Duke at age four, in the Duke University collection. From one high-profile gig to the next, she did very well.
She maintained a studio in Paris for some years between 1905 and the beginning of World War I in 1914. There she met and became fast friends with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and many others, I’m sure. From “The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas” (1933):
I remembered very well that when I was quite young and went to a fancy-dress ball, a Mardi Gras ball in San Francisco, I saw a very tall and very beautiful and very brilliant woman there. This was Myra Edgerly young. Genthe, the well known photographer did endless photographs of her, mostly with a cat.
She had come to London as a miniaturist and she had had one of those phenomenal successes that Americans do have in Europe. She had miniatured everybody, and the royal family, and she had maintained her earnest gay careless outspoken San Francisco way through it all. She now came to Paris to study a little.
Also in 1914, Mira married Frederick Burt, but the marriage was a brief one. Probably lasted just long enough for Genthe to snap, develop, and present this portrait of the couple.
In 1918, Mira was working as a chaperone for a group of Vassar girls at a tea in Washington DC, when she met Count Alfred Skarbek de Korzybski.
The photo at right, most definitely not one of Genthe’s, was taken on Mira & Alfred’s wedding day, January 17, 1919 – two months after that tea party. Yikes. (I took one look at this photo, and this man, and figured he was Someone. And it was through investigating him that I discovered Mira’s painting career!) But whatever they may have lacked in warm-fuzzies, they were up to their respective teeth in Social Position. Alfred was a for-real Count, as well as a famous, decorated War Hero. And Little Mira from Aurora, Illinois, the girl who painted on poker chips, was now a Countess. And they were crazy in love too, which is nice.
I’m not even going to try to explain the main points of Alfred’s school of thought, known as General Semantics. Suffice to say, Mira did a lot to help him frame his arguments, and solidify his thinking. She was the classic sounding-board and theoretic sparring partner. While he was writing his two most significant works, Manhood of Humanity (1921) and Science and Sanity (1933), Mira’s painting career kept them housed and fed.
Mira died in 1954.